Rebecca Morgan Frank is a Chicago transplant, known her for her work as one of the founders and the editor-in-chief at “Memorious: A Journal of New Verse and Fiction.” She’s taught at several universities and has penned three previous poetry collections. In her most recent book, “Oh You Robot Saints!” explores the dreams and fancies of creating robots that perform like living creatures, including human beings. Frank spoke with Newcity about her book, and how robots tap into our deep fears, mythology and perceptions of women and the body.
Talk about what got you interested in the subject of robots, and how that became “Oh You Robot Saints!”
I came across Elly Truitt’s book “Medieval Robots,” which introduced me to the strange world of automata, the self-moving machines that imitate humans and animals and that were early incarnations of what we now call robots. I started writing about automaton monks and monkeys and talking heads. My focus stretched backward to early Greek and Roman sources, and forward to android babies, robot Buddhist monks and robotic bees. Humans have endeavored to create artificial life for thousands of years.
I was intrigued with how the collection begins with poems about imagined robots and historic attempts at robots mimicking living things, and how it segues into later poems where the human body acts like a machine. Tell me how you started to make that parallel.
Your question immediately makes me think of this line in “Jane Eyre”: “Do you think I am an automaton?—a machine without feelings?” And of course, before that, we have Descartes to thank for the metaphor of living beings as machines. Yet we live in a time in which the metaphors of past thinkers and writers are reshaped by the realities of twenty-first-century technology: our bodies are both “like” machines, while sometimes being part machine, and we live in fear of being replaced by machines. If our bodies are like machines, and can even be machines, what is it that continues to differentiate us, animate us?
This book is also searing in terms of how the poems describe women’s bodies, the scrutiny around those bodies, and what happens when those bodies work differently than is widely expected. Could you elaborate on that?
The concept of building a human opens the doors to so many questions about human identity. As I touch on in my poem, “The Mechanical Eves,” male makers have often created women for domestic service as well as for sexual and religious purposes, perpetuating the enduring virgin/whore trope. The ideals of “woman” that these creations reflect, and perpetuate, are ubiquitous and impact every area of women’s lives. The identity of roboticists, engineers and programmers will have an increasing impact on women’s lives in the future. Ultimately, the figure of the robot is essential to both our theory and our realities as humans.
The poem “The Girlfriend Elegies” stuck with me because it is astounding how a litany of women disappear from the speaker’s life. Some of them simply disappeared. I’ve returned to the memory of another girl named Tara who was the same age as me, and she was murdered in my hometown. How did you begin to place this book among the other poems?
All of the girls and women in this poem are dead. What drives me in this poem is not only the nature of the death of each of these humans I have loved, but that such a litany is not uncommon, due to the prevalence of violence against girls and women, the isolation and estrangement from families of many queer women, and the lack of prioritization of health issues that solely affect women. We live in a culture that accepts that women’s lives are disposable: we constantly see girls and women die across all media. How many of us first learn this from losing a girl we know, a girl in our town? “The Girlfriend Elegies” also connects to the elegies about another woman, my mother, who passed as I began this book. Interest in enduring artificial life is tied to the reality that we cannot sustain natural life or suspend grief.
When I got to the poem “Recognition,” I kept thinking about how machines are becoming more human, whether we’re looking at the study of haptics to simulate human touch, sex robots, or the fascination we have with androids. What kind of future do you think humans are building their way toward as we interact more and more with machines?
Most of my research for this book was looking backwards, rather than forwards, in part because I find the ongoing research and progress with AI terrifying. So much of our public discourse about the future seems locked up in reaction to novelty—that fascination that you mention that we all have—rather than consideration of the consequences of evolving AI and what it means for our humanity. I find self-driving cars terrifying. What does it mean to have “self-driving” androids and animals? Are we as a society really asking these questions?
Please say something about the poetic line. How do you make decisions about arranging your lines?
I create lines by ear: poems come to me in part like song. The music of poetry matters to me, and a big part of my poetry education was listening. My early years as a poet were in Boston where, like in Chicago, you could go to a reading every night of the week if you wanted. I even worked the door and lights at a reading series, soaking up the music beyond the words every Monday night. Of course, like you, I have a doctorate and have taught poetry at the university level for many years, so I have spent a lot of time thinking about the craft of the line. Reading is an internal listening that also trains the ear. And then the ear does what it wants!
Are there any sci-fi or speculative works that informed this work?
I recommend Karel Capek’s 1920’s play “R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots),” which brought us our current use of the word robot: it is the original “worker robots take over the world” narrative. And of course, there are E.T.A. Hoffman’s stories “The Sandman” and “Automata.” Once you start looking, automata pop up in a lot of unexpected places.
Newcity Lit Editor Tara Betts is the author of “Break the Habit” and “Arc & Hue.” Her interviews and features have appeared in publications such as Hello Giggles, Mosaic Magazine, NYLON, The Source, Sixty Inches from Center, and Poetry magazine. She also hosts author chats at the Seminary Co-Op bookstores in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.